We’re Traveling at the Speed of Cool to Creepy



Who would you give your personal information to: your state’s new toll road system, an amusement park, neither, or both?


Who would you give your personal information to: your state’s new toll road system, an amusement park, neither, or both?

At a Forrester event earlier this year, Melissa Parrish, a Forrester VP and research director, told the story about how her father (we’ll call him Bob), who lives in New Jersey, was rattled by NJ’s E-ZPass system. “There’s no way I’m giving them my personal information so I can get a pass!” he told his daughter.

Bob had been traveling the toll roads to his NY job for decades, and he had no interest in getting an E-ZPass electronic tag in his car. Yet later, when Bob went to Disney World in Orlando with the grandchildren, he was delighted with Disney’s new MagicBand, and couldn’t stop raving about it.

Given Melissa’s deep knowledge of customer data and how it’s used, she didn’t understand why her father was not okay sharing his personal data with the NJ Turnpike Authority—even though it meant he would save time and money on his daily commute. Yet, Bob was more than willing to let Disney track his every move, check-in to FastPass+ rides, buy food, and get in and out of the park and hotel—all with the swipe of the band on his wrist.

This is the dilemma we all face: How much personal information are we willing to give up to enjoy some of the conveniences offered by technology today? And at what point does cool (like Disney’s MagicBand) cross the line and become creepy (like NJ’s E-ZPass)?

About personal data collection. A minority of us travel toll roads, and it may be years before we visit a Disney park and have the opportunity to wear a MagicBand. Yet all of us are experiencing the universal impact of big data privacy in our daily lives, whether it’s in our cars, on our devices, at home, in our work places, while traveling, or just out and about around town.

Big data privacy and personal data collection are tightly coupled. Companies and individuals we do business with have been collecting our personal information for decades – either on paper or electronically. Technically speaking, they’ve been collecting our “small” transactional data (and in some cases, a lot of it). “Big” data has changed this data playing field. “We the people” are now generating an exponential amount of data with all our Facebook photos, Twitter updates, YouTube videos, smartphones, GPS tracking devices, FitBits, and smart home appliances and devices. And yes, even with our E-ZPass electronic tags and MagicBands.

By establishing an account, relationship, and/or connection with a company, brand or app, we are trusting them to use our personal data ethically, securely, and more often than not, privately.

Why this matters. I love this quote from Vala Afshar: “We are not a team because we work together. We are a team because we trust, respect and care for each other.” When a company/brand/app makes our trust, respect, and care a top priority—in action, not just in words—it strengthens the relationship and creates customer loyalty.

It is no longer good enough to make the connection or get the account. The challenge now for companies/brands/apps is to demonstrate that they are trustworthy, respectable, and care about safeguarding what customers have shared with them—i.e., their personal data. Failing this challenge or not taking this challenge seriously enough only opens the door to your competitors.

Now it’s your turn. As a data professional, you understand your customers’ concerns with big data privacy because you’re grappling with it yourself on a personal level. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes as you consider the following priorities:

  • Convenience. We all like convenience, and in an economy where time is short and competition is high, it’s important that we continually improve our customers’ experience with us—whether it’s faster processing times, easier site/app navigation, less clicks, or more channels to connect. In making your customers’ experience more convenient, be sure to properly safeguard any additional data being collected.
  • Connection. In today’s economy, we largely stay connected through the data we share and the devices we use. Even our cars, homes, workplaces, and cities are becoming more connected through data and devices. What role does your company play in this connected economy? Are you making it easier or harder for your customers to stay connected?
  • Value. Customers will share their personal information with you if they believe they’re getting something valuable in return. The rub here is that value is both relative and subjective. What one person desires and values highly, another person may quickly dismiss. The key takeaway here is if your company collects personal information, only collect the data you need to run your business or improve their experience, and continually look for ways to reward them for their data.

One final thought. If you recall, Melissa’s father, Bob, was creeped out by the NJ E-ZPass system, yet delighted with Disney’s MagicBand. Melissa asked her father why. “The MagicBand is worth it. It’s convenient and offers a lot of value,” her father replied.

Personally, I find the MagicBand both cool and creepy—and the NJ E-ZPass the least creepy of the two. But that’s just me. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.